Visitors who make a turn onto Light Plant Rd. in Buxton may do a double take when they pass by an iconic home that’s tucked away across from the Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperation.
This is the site of one of the most famous gift shops in Hatteras Island history – The Old Gray House Gifts and Shells – which was an annual stop on many vacationers’ itinerary for nearly 25 years. Many folks remember going to the store as children, and were starting to bring their own kids to the famed gift shop to peruse the iconic shelves of shells, treasures, and bits of Hatteras Island legacy.
And while the Grays of the Old Gray Gift Shop are about to start a new adventure, (much to the delight of their many longtime fans – stay tuned), the building that once housed their famed store is starting a new chapter as well.
No longer the home of the Old Gray House Gifts and Shells, the property will nevertheless continue its longstanding role as a gift store – with a new owner, and a new aesthetic and arsenal of reasons to explore.
As noted, there are quite a few changes already underway.
For one thing, the home is no longer gray.
“I think the first thing people will say is ‘it’s not gray anymore! It’s a green color!’ But the Gray House was the original family name of the house,” says new owner and proprietor Mariah James.
Mariah has been working for months to make the landmark property her own, and as a lifelong local herself with deep ties to the island, staying “close to home” was a cornerstone of her decision to start a new shop.
“I’m from here, and I tried moving around for a while, but I didn’t like the ‘real world,’” she says. “I love Hatteras Island.”
“And I thought, ‘Maybe if I buy some property, I can open my own business’ – not knowing exactly what that business was at the time, but just thinking that I would be able to put my own energy into it, and make something on the island that’s mine.”
Mariah started looking at properties for several months – and had even put an offer on a property she wasn’t too crazy about – before the perfect opportunity happened to come into view.
“I saw that the Gray House was for sale, and I used to go there all the time as a kid – everyone did,” she says. “I was going to Connor’s one day, and was thinking about it, and then I just made a turn, drove down the road and talked to Mr. Dewey [Parr.] A couple days later, I put in an offer, and after a couple months they accepted it.”
“They wanted someone who was from the island and who would make it their own, but not just turn it into a hotel – they wanted it to stay special,” she says. “And I am so thankful that they chose me, and sold [the property] to me.”
In many ways, Mariah feels like it was a sign. “I found out later, after the offer, that Dewey actually bought the Gray House and gave it to Mary on the exact date of my birth – February 14th 1991.”
The closing day was just two days after Hurricane Matthew, and Mariah waited anxiously after the storm to leave her flooded home and see if the site of her new venture was still standing.
“We drove by it as soon as we could – we had four feet of water in our yard,” she says. “But as soon as we could, we drove up there and said ‘Good! It’s still standing!’ Yardwork was all that needed to be done in terms of clean-up, so we were very lucky.”
Since then, it’s been a long road to turn the property into Mariah’s own shop. Like many islanders, Mariah wears a lot of hats and has other jobs and work to do – in addition to setting up shop – which has resulted in a lengthy process to get to a grand opening date.
“After the hurricane, we were so busy with our clean-up work, and regular work, and I wasn’t able to give the house attention for a while,” she says. “But we’ve been working hard, and every day that I spend time in there I think, ‘I had no idea that this was my dream, but it is.’”
“It makes me appreciate so much more that Mr. Dewey and Ms. Mary took a chance on me.”
And the property she inherited looked a lot different from what she remembered – in the interior, at least.
“If someone asked me what the walls and floor looked like [when it was the Old Gray House], my memory would have been fuzzy because it was always full,” she says. “When I arrived, the place was empty except for a few shelves, so it was just a completely blank slate.”
The roof had a few spots that needed to be replaced, and Mariah went to work repainting, making repairs, and putting her own signature on her new store.
“We took out all the carpet, and are refinishing the floors, which are heart pine floors and are so beautiful. Part of the floor that was covered by carpet had fallen in, so a section needed to be replaced,” she says. “We were able to borrow floors from someone who was redoing their floors – which was also a historic home – so we were able to keep the historical [feel] intact.”
She also notes that there are many elements of the property which predate the use of hardwood floors and store-bought materials.
“The main part of the home was built in the 1890s, and then it was added onto over the years,” she says. “Back in the day, they would take [materials] that had washed up on the beach, haul it to shore, repurpose it, and use it in the building,” she says.
“Before there was a lumber store to go to, you just used what you had. [I think] that the upstairs tongue and grove bead board must have come out of a ship.”
With the renovations and remodeling comes natural changes, and Mariah is working on stocking her new store with a collection of different items.
“In the kitchen room, we’re going to keep it as a pantry and have canned goods in there for sale,” she says. “We also just had an inspection to have drip coffee and coffee beans for sale. We just spruced up the room – we didn’t want to rip out the kitchen – and everyone loves the smell of fresh coffee.”
As for what items will be for sale, Mariah attests that there will be lots to peruse and admire. “It will be a fun mix. A number of crafters want to sell at the store and I’m thrilled to have them, so there will be a lot of handmade things,” she says. “We’ll also have yard art, concrete statues, and a plant room we’re calling the ‘green room.’”
She’s also carving out a corner for a “Thrifty Nickle” section with vintage goods and antiques, and concentrating on showcasing local talents in the form of handmade cards, mirrors, and many more goodies. “I know someone who recycles plastic bags and makes purses, and bags, and all sorts of really cool things,” she says. “We also got [our] home kitchen to pass inspection so [my mom] can sell her famous jams in the store.”
“Essentially, we hope to sell everything that makes you smile.”
In addition, on the second Saturday of every month, Mariah plans to pick a local organization or non-profit and donate 20% of all sales – not just the profits – to that organization.
“The first one will be Hatteras Island Meals, but it’s open to anyone who is trying to raise money for good causes,” she says. “It will be a way to give back to the community.”
The original Old Gray House Shells and Gifts will be resurrected in the near future in another form – (and more on that highly anticipated development will come in a future article.)
But for now, the property which was always a gift shop will continue its longstanding function, but with a new owner, a new look, and hopefully a new wave of future generations of visitors.
“I just hope that people will embrace the change and not be horrified that it’s not exactly the same,” says Mariah. “I hope that Mr. Dewey and Ms. Mary will want to come back and see it. I still can’t believe that they let me buy the [the property.] I’m so thankful for them.”
“People evolve and change, and that’s what the [former] Gray house is doing too.”